After heroic efforts to keep school doors open this Fall, schools are yet again shutting down and returning to distance learning as COVID-19 cases spike across the country. With no choice but to return to remote learning, schools have struggled to support their students and provide them with the resources and education they need to succeed. Already the disease has taken a toll. A preprint study of data from the Netherlands conducted during the pandemic shows significant learning losses sustained from March through May, compared with learning gains observed during the same two-month period last year—with a particularly severe drop in achievement for students from less educated homes. In the midst of a pandemic, how do teachers prevent a generation of students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, from falling further behind?
One solution is tutoring. I and my colleagues recently analyzed 96 randomized evaluations of different tutoring models and found that 80 percent of the studies led to markedly improved outcomes, with more than half of the studies reporting large gains as a result of these programs. In education research, such consensus is a rarity, and the consistency and magnitude of the results are both remarkable and encouraging. In Chicago, for example, a two-on-one high school tutoring program empowered students to learn one to two years ahead in math, compared with what they would typically learn in a school year.
Studies show tutoring is a highly effective tool. The question is how to implement it when any in-person interaction poses a risk of COVID-19 infection. Fortunately, preliminary evidence suggests that virtual tutoring models may produce the same benefits as in-person tutoring. During the pandemic, researchers conducted a randomized evaluation of a tutoring program in Italy. In the study, which has not yet been published, middle school students who received three hours of online tutoring a week—over a computer, tablet or smartphone—from trained university students saw a 4.7 percent boost in performance in math, English and Italian. With six hours of tutoring support, improvement doubled. What’s more, the tutors seemed to play a mentoring role as well. Parents, teachers and the students themselves reported an increase in well-being, goals and social and emotional skills.
While rigorous evaluation of their impact is still needed, we’ve also seen similar virtual tutoring programs reach sizable student populations in the U.S. during the pandemic. One such program, introduced by the Tennessee Tutoring Corps, trained 430 college students to tutor more than 2,000 students across the state in math and English for seven to eight weeks.
A small-scale study described in a recent report tracked the results of a program that combined one-on-one remote tutoring with an online math game. The investigation found that the tutoring component was essential in helping students to improve. The results suggest that tutoring is a key tool—more than educational games or other learning sites—in keeping students engaged and combatting the growing COVID-19 learning loss.
Many affluent families are already employing private tutors to help their children keep up. Some large